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by David Van Winkle

Question: Bears seem to be big, bad, and ugly. Could you give us the straight story about bears and how to deal with them with in the outdoors.

Answer: This article will describe the various types of bears that exist in North America and how to attempt to live with them safely in the wild.

There are three species of bears in North America.

  1. Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the smallest and most common bear in the lower 48 states. They exist in many mountainous areas in the lower 48, including areas in places where the Dallas Sierra Club frequents on its trips. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado all have black bears, as well as other states. Males can weigh 200-300 pounds while females weigh about 130 pounds. Even at this weight, they can run 25-30 miles per hour for short distances.
  2. Brown bears and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) are genetically the same. The common naming convention today for bears on the coast of Alaska is Brown bear, where as all other locations typical call these animals grizzly bears. Brown bears found on the coast of Alaska are significantly larger than grizzly bears due the availability of salmon in their diet. Brown/grizzly bears are omnivores, eating both plant and animals. Male grizzlies weigh about 400 pounds and females weigh about 250 pounds. Brown bears on the coast of Alaska can weigh twice as much. Grizzlies/brown bears can run 35 mph for short distances. Grizzly bears exist in some of the northwest states, Alaska, and Canada. If you saw the movie “Grizzly Man”, those bears were all Brown bears.
  3. Polar bears are the largest and are 99% carnivorous. As polar bears reside only in far North America, we will not spend much time talking about them in this article.

Some interesting factoids about bears….

  1. Their vision is believed to be good, although we have not sent one to an optometrist for a test recently. Their smelling ability is legendary.
  2. Bears hibernate due to lack of food, not because it is too cold. So, their hibernation habits will change based on local availability of food.
  3. Bears mate in May to July. Most females will mate with several males. The female does not actually get pregnant until October. It is unknown how the father is determined. Males spend significant energy fighting amongst themselves for mating rights. Males will exhibit scars from their spring battles in the summer.
  4. Litter sizes are usually 2-3, with some exceptions. The cubs are born in January and weigh about 1 pound. They are born this light as it is more efficient to breast feed them than it is to grow them internally. Black bear cubs stay with their mothers for 18 months, where as brown/grizzly sows usual stay with their cubs for 30 months.

How to stay safe in the wild with bears….

If I could summarize these actions into one word, it would be respect. You should respect the bears right to exist and making a living in the wild. It is constantly looking for food, raising young, etc. The bear does not have a particularly easy life. It must eat almost constantly to support the long winters and reproductive cycles. So, it wants to be left alone, eat, and raise its young. If you present a threat to it, it will react. If you give it space and take the appropriate precautions, the odds are in your favor of existing in peaceful co-existence. So, what are the key actions that you need to take….

  1. Know when you are in bear country.
  2. Travel in groups of 4 or more. The statistics indicate that larger groups are much safer than individuals.
  3. As you travel through bear country, stay alert and make some noise so that you do not surprise a bear. Some people wear bells, but experts believe that this creates a false sense of security for people that they don’t need to be alert.
  4. Take proper care of your food. Keep it away from your tent. Check the local regulations and recommended actions to store your food. The food and cooking area should be 100 yards from your sleeping area.
  5. In some situations, pepper spray is recommended. It has been shown to be quite effective in close encounters. Guns have been shown to be ineffective and are not recommended. (The only place that you could stop a charging bear with a bullet is the brain. Have you ever tried to shoot a softball size object when moving at 30 mph?)
  6. DO NOT RUN. Bears can out run any human being. Bears can out climb any human in the short run. If you run, the bear’s predator instincts may kick-in. Stand your ground. Act confident.
  7. The National Park Service recommends that you attempt to keep 50 yards between you and all bears. Make it 100 yards for sows with cubs.
  8. Most black bears will retreat when yelled at by humans. Black bears are creatures of the forest and their response to threats is typically to flee.
  9. Grizzlies have evolved more in open terrain (in the time of Lewis & Clark, they were very common on the high plains of North America) and have learned to defend themselves against threats, but if you do not bother a grizzly, it will rarely bother you. Bears are not territorial, but they do want space.

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